STEM Program Works to Retain Math, Science Teachers

A new program at the UA is helping to improve the retention of math and science teachers in the K-12 system.
July 22, 2009
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The Southern Arizona Center for the Development and Retention of Science and Mathematics Teachers is a partnership between the UA Colleges of Education and Science and the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities, various public school districts, local charter schools and also science and technology businesses.

A new program is trying to address the rate of attrition among K-12 science and mathematics in the state.
A new program is trying to address the rate of attrition among K-12 science and mathematics in the state.
Students in a new program launched through the UA's Southern Arizona Science and Math Internship Center are learning about ways to bring more STEM-related workplace knowledge into the classroom.
Students in a new program launched through the UA's Southern Arizona Science and Math Internship Center are learning about ways to bring more STEM-related workplace knowledge into the classroom.

In Arizona and other parts of the United States, the rate of science and mathematics educators leaving the K-12 system within the first five years of teaching is hampering the ability to keep students up to par in some critical areas of instruction.

While numerous programs – such as fast-track certificates such as scholarship programs – exist to funnel students into science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, disciplines, a new program at The University of Arizona is working to retain those in the teaching profession.

With a 3-year Science Foundation Arizona grant totaling $750,000 and matching funds from local business partners, the UA's teaching, learning and socioculural studies department has launched the Southern Arizona Science and Math Internship Center.

"Students in middle school and high school often do not see the relevance of what they are studying," said Bruce Johnson, the UA's teaching, learning and socioculural studies department head.

"So, one of the ideas is that we have a group of people in similar situations and tailor the curriculum to what they are dealing with," Johnson added.

Geared toward math and science teachers in southern Arizona who are new to their careers, the new three-year master's degree program engages educators who are working with middle school and high school students through course work and paid internships.

Each year, the program will involve a cohort of at least 20 master's students who have the option to focus on either math or science. During the academic year, participating teachers may take classroom courses that fit their schedules, or content coursework offered online.

The UA team's grant proposal noted that the demand for highly qualified math and science teachers in the region is outpacing the supply, noting that "nearly half of Arizona teachers leave the profession in the first five years." The National Science Board recently reported that the need for qualified STEM teachers has become critical.

The program at the UA began in May with teachers placed in summer internships with Raytheon, SEBRA, Texas Instruments and elsewhere. They work alongside engineers, scientists and accountants on projects whose concepts they can take back to their classrooms in the fall.

Currently, the teachers are interning Monday through Thursday and spending their Fridays in class at the UA.

"There has been research that consistently shows that the teachers think these types of programs are great, they love the experience and think it is valuable," Johnson said.

Johnson is the principal investigator on the grant. William McCallum, who heads the UA's mathematics department, and Vicente Talanquer, an associate professor of chemistry, both are as co-principal investigators.

Researchers also will evaluate the program's effectiveness. Key partners in the program are Science Foundation Arizona, the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities and Tucson Values Teachers, a regional partnership supporting K-12 educators.

"Our plan is to use these three years to create something sustainable long term," Johnson said.

As part of their summer studies, the teachers are working to understand ways that science and math work in the workplace, along with ways in which math and science intersect with business and industry.

"We want to keep them part of this learning community where they are part of a network and feel they are part of something bigger," Johnson said, adding that the teachers need a space to share ideas about what is working, and not working, in the classroom.

"With this," he said, "there is a better chance that they will stay in the profession longer." 

The program's participants also are rethinking how student success is measured while also evaluating their classroom environments and how they may promote or hamper student involvement, said Julia Olsen, program director of the center, which is housed in the UA College of Education.

"We want them to think of ways they can look at their students differently," Olsen said, adding that part of the challenge is in incorporating real world teachings, but also in figuring out ways to creatively and collectively engage young learners.

"We want them to have a shared goal in their classrooms," Olsen said, "so that students are not marginalized, but working together."